To get to Northern Virginia in time to surprise a boy he had never met, Shannon Rogish couldn’t just roll out of bed and drive a few miles.
He had to plan.
He had to take the day off, wake up to a still-black sky and drive for hours.
The map app told him it would take about three hours to get there from his home in Staunton, Va. So on Tuesday, he went to bed at 7 p.m., and on Wednesday, he woke up by 2 a.m. and was on the road by 3.
“I was just praying the whole time as I was driving that I wouldn’t hit anything and that traffic wouldn’t be that bad,” he said while sitting in his car, a Mountain Dew in the center console, just in case he needed the caffeine. “And I got lucky with all that.”
Rogish’s 2015 Camaro was among the 100-plus yellow vehicles that lined several blocks of an Alexandria neighborhood on Wednesday morning, providing a bright moment on an otherwise solemn day. Later, across the region and country, there would be remembrances for those who were lost on Sept. 11, 2001. But for a few hours, at this speck on the map, strangers came together to celebrate a life.
They came to surprise a boy who turned 4 that day and was healthy for the first time ever on his birthday.
“I’m just doing it because I want to see the kid smile,” said Rogish, a volunteer firefighter and an engineer at a manufacturing plant. “I can only imagine the hell he’s gone through.”
That hell began just weeks after Whitaker Weinburger’s first birthday. A blood test led to a concerning call from his pediatrician and soon, his mother, Erin Weinburger, was sitting in the hospital, listening to a doctor tell her that her 13-month-old had Stage 4 neuroblastoma.
In a recent column, I told you what the family went through in the years that followed that cancer diagnosis. I also shared with you how after a double stem-cell transplant, only one potentially concerning spot now remains on Whitaker’s scans and he is healthy enough to attend preschool.
When his mother and his father, Seth Weinburger, first started talking about how to make his walk to school special on his birthday, their idea focused on a single yellow car. Whitaker often begs them to drive by one in their neighborhood because it reminds him of Bumblebee, a character from the Transformer cartoon and movie series. They considered asking their neighbor to park in front of their house on Whitaker’s birthday.
Then, Erin Weinburger took that idea further. She posted a call for yellow cars on a private Facebook page. That request then made its way onto other pages, into the media and onto the calendars of more yellow-vehicle owners than she ever expected.
When she thought 50 drivers might show up, she told me, “I hope that all those people that come connect with each other, too, because they’re seeing something great. They’re seeing something great in each other.”
On Wednesday, more than 100 came. I wish I could tell you exactly how many, but it was impossible to count them all. There were bulldozers and buses, Camaros and Corvettes. There were yellow cabs with “Happy Birthday” balloons dangling outside their windows.
There was even a child-size yellow Tesla with an Autobot symbol on its hood and “Whitaker” on its license plate.
Pratik Sharma, of Ashburn, said his friend bought it for Whitaker as a gift. Sharma told me this while wearing a head-to-toe Bumblebee costume.
Are you a Bumblebee fan? I asked.
“I am today,” he said, “for Whitaker.”
Doug Hoyles also came with gifts for the child. He placed three toy cars still in their boxes on a wagon and attached it to a remote-control car.
Hoyles, who lives in Ashburn, loves cars and loves yellow, so when Erin Weinburger’s Facebook post started spreading, he heard about it from “maybe 70 or 80 people.”
Three of the cars that lined the roads near the family’s house belonged to him. He drove his Camaro, his wife drove his Charger and friend Pete Lapp drove his Ram.
Lapp, who is an FBI agent, described the celebratory atmosphere as a welcome contrast to other memories from Sept. 11. Eighteen years earlier, he spent 9/11 interviewing a woman who, during a hotel stay, saw one of the planes crash.
“This is a good memory for all of us,” Lapp said.
When Whitaker finally walked out his front door with his mom, dad and sister, he saw neighbors waving signs, people in yellow clothes standing by yellow cars and cameras, so many cameras, pointed at him. He ducked for a moment behind his sister, Lakeland, and then held her hand and walked to the front of his yard.
“Let’s all sing!” someone yelled, and the crowd broke into “Happy Birthday.”
Soon, Whitaker was smiling and taking in the surreal scene while walking to school with an entourage of familiar and strange faces.
“Bumblebee!” he squealed, followed by “Bumblebee! Bumblebee!”
“Thank you,” he and his parents said repeatedly.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s amazing,” his grandfather Terry Weinburger said as we walked together at one point. “And it’s just a demonstration of what I would call the value of community, of people caring.”
The Alexandria Sheriff’s Office took on the tough task of directing drivers into parking spots along the route, and when the vehicles were finally in place, they stretched for more than mile, all the way to Charles Barrett Elementary School. When Whitaker finally arrived, he found the students waiting outside to see him and teacher Melissa Poggio directing traffic while dressed as Bumblebee.
The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” once more, and then, it was time for the group celebration to end. Whitaker had to get to class.
The drivers also had to get going. Some had long stretches of road ahead of them.
Rogish, who has participated in charitable drives through Rally North America, planned to drive straight home. He said the three hours he spent getting to Alexandria and the three hours he would spend leaving it were “most certainly” worth it.
He moved his car twice while the family walked so that he could catch glimpses of Whitaker.
“He had a big ol’ smile on his face both times he passed me,” he said. “The kid has a lot of energy, and that was good to see.”